Sunday, October 26, 2008

All Good Things: Happy Endings & The Comic Bookie in Claremont, CA

For almost as long as I've known comic books are sold in their own specialty stores, I've known that said stores are a struggling business at best. The first shop my friends and I rode our bikes to in Glendale, Arizona changed its name so soon after we discovered it that I don't even remember what its original name was, and since it moved to another location right around the time my pals were driving, we opted for the more commercially viable Atomic Comics in Phoenix. When I moved to Fullerton, California, I was grateful to find a comics shop right here in town -- 21st Century Comics, which, in the five years I shopped there, moved locations four times, changed management twice, and eventually closed its doors for good. As I've mentioned before, now I opt for Comics, Toons, 'N Toys in Tustin, which recently expanded by purchasing the neighboring space in its strip mall, so I assume business is stable enough to guarantee my patronage for at least a few more years to come.

While the closing of a comic book is tragic for its loyal customers, it can be serendipitous for manic collectors. My collection must have doubled some years ago when a shop closed in Placentia, California, and toward the end of the store's going-out-of-business sale, back issues were a mere dime each. I easily collected the entire Giffin/DeMatties run on Justice League International, and I found the entire Jemm, Son of Saturn miniseries for my buddy Booth. So, when I read that the Comic Bookie in Claremont was having a similar sale, I dragged my girlfriend along for the ride this past Saturday, the soonest day I could get there and coincidentally the date of the shop's last Guest Dealer Event. A similar event is what brought me to the Comic Bookie for the first time last year, when I signed up for the mailing list that eventually informed me of its demise, so my visit was somewhat poetic in its cyclical nature. A tragic poem, it seemed, as I overheard faithful customers bid farewell to Chris, their resident comic book guy. The deals I scored were almost overshadowed by the reality of it all . . . almost.

More about the books in a bit. First, I should explain that any sense of tragedy about the Comic Bookie's closing was quickly averted by Chris's positive attitude, as he explained to new and longtime customers alike that he hoped to host mini-comic cons and retailer shows in downtown Claremont, which, as the home for several private colleges or universities, must foster an artsy community that would embrace such a thing. While on the surface Chris's plan may seem like another attempt to move inventory, the key was his tone -- one that reflected a determination to get comics into the hands of readers by whatever means necessary. Sure, the guy's a business man with profit on his mind, but the guy has a reputation for renting space in his own back room for guest retailers for an extremely reasonable $20 fee. One retailer made his money back from me alone, so I can only imagine what they pull in over the course of a whole day. The implication of Chris's behavior should be embraced by "comic book guys" all over the country; in this economy, competition isn't nearly as valuable to a business plan as networking is, as sharing resources (and thus clientele) is. And I'll stop there before the McCain camp accuses me of being a socialist.

So, I spent about $40 between the 50 cent bins, the 50% off recent back issue bins, and the 30% off graphic novels, and while I'm usually about quantity at sales like this, I was more interested in quality art and storytelling this time around, and I think I found that in such scattered back issues of Spider-man's Tangled Web and Tom Strong, and in long-awaited finds like Scott Morse's LittleGreyMan and all five issues of Dr. Strange: Oath. How fitting, though, that I was most excited to find Dark Horse's 2002 anthology Happy Endings, while the Comic Bookie was celebrating its. Even without the 30% discount, the 96-page collection is a steal for its original $9.95, featuring the works of funnybook bigshots like Frank Miller, Sam Keith, and Brian Michael Bendis, and I was stoked to find contributions by personal favorites like Farel Dalrymple, Jim Mahfood, and James Kochalka, too. Generally speaking, all of the stories are well illustrated and thought-provoking, and though some shine more than others, I was excited to sample works from Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire, and Harvey Pekar, all beloved authors or artists that I haven't read enough. Anthologies can do that, and in fact Happy Endings was very much the beginning of something I hope to pursue with these talented contributors' other works . . .

Also, since Flight and Popgun have made anthologies all the rage lately, I've been interested in what artists will create for loosely themed compilations like Happy Endings. Editor Diana Schutz explains in her addendum that the artists were simply told to pen a tale that incorporated a "happy ending" idea, a coveted idea in that just post-9/11 world, yet the stories obviously didn't even have to end with one. I expected a short story about the massage parlor happy ending phenomenon, since that's what most would think of when they hear the phrase (oh, don't tell me it's just me), but the closest we get is a single panel gag in Miller's story starring a gun-wielding hooker -- surprise, surprise. Several of the stories tackled autobiographical material, like Bendis's San Diego Comic Con yarn or the more weighty tale of African tribalism by Kuper. Others examined the complexities of childhood fantasy and frustration, from Dalrymple's token surrealism, to Craig Thompson's tale of two children growing up in a slaughterhouse-oriented barn, to Leland Myrick's poetic reminiscence about family. Still other artists tapped into previously established characters and simply did what they do best, from Sam Keith's musings on his career via Maxx villain Mr. Gone to Mahfood's Grrl Scouts joint. Mignola's contribution won the 2003 Eisner award for best short story, and rightfully so, with its poignant visuals and childlike fantasy. Bottom line -- the Miller/Varley cover says it all, featuring a pistol-packing midget. Despite Happy Endings' compact size, don't doubt its ability to pack a punch. And you wouldn't even see it coming from such a flighty title (pun intended)!

And we obviously haven't seen the last of the Comic Bookie, if its customer base has anything to say about it. Apparently Chris will maintain his occasional e-mail newsletter to let us know when his dreams of monthly cons become a reality . . . because they obviously will. In the face of possible defeat and bitterness, this bookie's positive attitude proves you can bet on that.

Happy Endings was published by Dark Horse Comics in September, 2002.

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